Monday, December 17, 2007

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A contest just for professors

At this very moment, academics in North America are in the middle of grading their final papers.

I'm knee-deep in mine, and they inspire the usual range of emotions -- fear, hope, dread, nausea, and somnolence.

As professors across the continent look for a reason -- any reason -- to procrastinate in their grading, the hardworking staff here at hereby invites them to participate in the following Bad Student Writing Contest:*

Post, in the comments, the single-worst sentence you have read in a student paper.
Some ground rules:
1) In-class exams do not count -- you can't expect polished writing in that setting. Besides, Brad DeLong already wins this category.

2) Gven the fragility of some students, be as anonymous as you can in your submission.

3) Bonus points if it's a grad student paper.

I'll open with a grad paper I just graded (and, intriguingly, received a decent grade despite this opening sentence):

Time and again, one can hear about history repeating itself.
Top that.

The winner will be determined by a staff vote here at the blog, and will receive a prize of unspecified but clearly inestimable value.

*In the spirit of reciprocity, students will get their own contest sometime after the new year.

posted by Dan on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM


"Beginning in October 1940, the Germans marched across Poland like a herd of stampeding water buffaloes."

Among other things, note the date.

I encountered this years ago while a TA at a very well regarded American university.

posted by: irprof on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

I've been saving a file of these for just such an occasion:

Two entries for "best" opening line:

1) “The Civil War lasted no more than four years, but the red and blue blood that was spilt will last a life time.”

2) “Between 1890 and 1920, hundreds of thousands of women came together to put an end to women’s suffrage.”

From the Department of Redundancy Department:

“It seems that spontaneously at the same time all European countries decided to do this at the same time.”

General silliness:
“The north wanted Fort Sumter because the south had its ‘man handle’ over it.” [even better, several students plagiarized from one another on this paper, so I had about 6 variations on the “manhandle” theme]

“William Penn founded Pennsylvania and was the first communist in Jamestown.”

After I had noted in a lecture that the Confederacy's only significant crop was cotton, as opposed to the diversity of agriculture in the Union: “They [the South] could not rely on eating the cotton because it was the North that could make the cotton editable (sic).”

And the Grand Prize Goes To....
"Hitler bought scapegoats to sell to the Jews."

I gotta million of 'em....

OK, one more--this is from an ID, so its not eligible for the prize, but here goes:

ID for the Seven Years War—“…it showed how long people were willing to fight for their belief and freedom. Nine years is a very long time for a war. Especially since it was the French and Indians fighting, two of the most savage peoples of that era.”

Now, I've REALLY got to get back to grading...

posted by: BN on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

After trying to explain the importance (and the necessity based on my grading criteria) of addressing your potential critics to a student, this was the end result:

"That sounds like it does in fact work and in fact makes sense, however, in today's society that is not in fact the case. By having illegal immigrants working for less wages, it does not make the consumer pay less for something. What actually happens is the retailers and the corporation pay the illegal immigrants less money but then sell their product for the same price regardless of the nationality or citizen status of the worker, making them the person who makes money off the illegal immigrants working."

I teach at a university with a good Econ department (one with, say, several well known econ bloggers) so I didn't want this students (or others) writing things that might cause Econ dept. meetings to erupt into 10 minutes of sustained laughter. Then I realized I taught *English* and that the Econ dept. could deliver the intellectual flogging.

I also love the student who--in their first paper--claimed that withdrawing from Vietnam was easy compared to Iraq because "we just left after winning".

posted by: EnglishTA on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

This is from an in-class essay but displays such depth of error that it should count:

"Russia stayed out of the First World War because Stalin was in Africa fighting."

I don't think I could put so many factual errors in a sentence if I tried.

posted by: arthur on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

OK. Some of those entries from BN are really good, but I have always been fond of this one from 5-6 years ago...

At some point 6-7 years ago I must have been discussing hard power or incentivizing behavior during international negotiations or something like that. I explained that the United States used both carrots and sticks to shape the behavior of the target state. But, something was clearly lost in translation.

As the student explained in his paper, "The United States used carrot sticks to encourage the military leaders of Haiti to back down during this crisis."

Ever since I read that sentence I have wondered whether the student believed that U.S. marines were throwing bunches of carrot sticks at Hatian thugs OR whether crafty U.S. diplomats were tempting those carrot-craving Hatians with the kind of chilled sliced carrot sticks that mom kept in the fridge.

Clearly I need to clarify my use of "carrots and sticks" in that lecture.

posted by: Mike on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

Imagine my surprise when I learned:

"Nietzsche was a German son of a Lutheran pastor who later died in his earlier life. He worked as a prostitute where he eventually caught syphilis which led him to go insane throughout his later life before he eventually died of the disease."

I still look at the first sentence and think "It must MEAN something."

posted by: Rich on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

At this very moment, academics in North America are in the middle of grading their final papers.

Wrong! Some of us are better at procrastination and haven't even started. I teach MBAs and given how little many of them absorb in class, this is my final opportunity to teach them about monopoly power.

I salute DD's equanimity in not including either anger or depression/despair among his emotions. I can with great effort restrain my temper with the students who manage to not learn anything and get even the most basic, most often repeated material wrong. But I do confess to wanting to throttle the idiots who can't even follow the instructions.

As for depression, remember, these are the people who someday will be investging the assets of your money market fund in sub-prime SIVs. DD's students will merely be running the country.

posted by: gene on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

Wow, I thought there would be more takers. OK, here are two more on protoindustrialization, or, as one student put it, "prontoindustrialization":

"In 1733, a man named John K. developed the flying shuttle. This was a way to turn yarn into loin cloth."

“[The putting out] system introduced farmers to the cash economy by using broad cloth to create pants.”

As I said, I gotta million of 'em....

posted by: BN on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

More from the Department of Redundancy Department:

I find myself agreeing more with the arguments in each passing book more and more.

posted by: rcriii on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

The Chinese Communist Party follows a Marxist-Lenonist ideology.

posted by: Sam on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

This is borrowed from a friend of mine, but it was used in a grad paper:

“D.Phil who is a modern writer, chose to write about England and the sixteenth century military revolution.”

Man that guy D.Phil writes a bunch of books...

posted by: stratprof on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

From a senior paper evaluating the code of ethics for professional engineers:

"In the book of Exodus, God felt the need to implement a set of guidelines known as the Ten Commandments that would deter the greed of individual survival and show that through cooperation the entire human species would fair better. Since then, years of evolution have occurred, and man has had to alter their standards of conducting business."

And the opening line from the same paper:

"In the animal kingdom, there is only one desire--survival [8]."

What happened to references 1-7?

posted by: shawn on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

"If OPEC has been successful because of their ability to set production rates then we can perceive that the consumers of this market although benefit, they do not take full advantage of the market but instead are being manipulated by these countries."

This paper is taking me way too long to grade...

posted by: MK on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

It's been a few years, but approximately:

"Protecting the Earth's environment will require many human sacrifices. But what sort of sacrifices, and by which people?"

posted by: anIRprof on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

How about, "Napoleon Bonaparte invented the Napoleonic Syndrome, otherwise known as little-guy disorder."

If they already knew it all they wouldn't need to be taught...

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

I'm only a TA, but I found this one to be an interesting take on the outcome of the Chinese Civil War:

"In 1949, having lost the election, the Taiwanese were again forced to leave China."

posted by: RH on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

I had to mark some pretty bad papers when I was a grad student in economics. I can't remember any specific examples, but most problems had to do with non-native English speakers struggling with the language. But from what I hear the best (i.e. worst) examples come from the English department, where students presumably don't have that excuse.

One young English prof I know told me about a student essay on Colleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the student kept referring to a character named Albert Ross who does not appear in the story. It was "Albert Ross did this" and "Albert Ross did that," etc. Finally the student wrote "the mariner shot Albert Ross, which was bad luck," and the prof realised that Albert Ross was actually "albatross." Obviously the student had not read the story and miheard "Albert Ross" for "albatross" in class. Another student of the same prof also revealed that she had not done the reading by constantly referring to the "Fantasy Echo" in her paper where she should have written "fin de siecle." I actually like the phrase "Fantasy Echo." To me it sounds like it should be the name of an early eighties new-wave synth band with bad hair.

posted by: american in europe on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

From my teaching assistant days during the cold war:

"The Soviets were the biggest liars since Jesus Christ"

"the nuclear margarine of difference"

"the arms control talks broke down, putting the disarmament process in libido" (or close to this)

"uphauled" (instead of "appalled")

posted by: AIJ on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

From a class on education policy, here's the title of one student's paper about standardized tests (note: in our state, the test is the MCAS):

Is the MCAS to hard?

Apparently, it is possible to answer one's research question in less than a sentence.

posted by: Shannon on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

I got this a few years ago as a TA at an Ivy League institution:

"As a President one is forced to view humanity in its entirety and be able to make rational concussions that would appeal to the largest crowd and also benefit the country."

posted by: gradstudent on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

This is an approximation, but close enough:
“President Bush used Iraq as an escape goat for the 9/11 attacks.”

I wish I had a goat with special escaping powers. I wonder if these escape goats wear capes.

posted by: JV on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

Also from TA days:

"John Locke believed that children are born with a clean plate."

...and their mothers must be very proud of them.

posted by: Kevin Miller on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

From a Fletcher Student to our Dear Professor...Great idea for a contest, but in defense of well-meaning students everywhere, let me propose another: "Worst Typographical Error by a College Professor in a Blog Post Intended to Poke Fun at Typographical Errors in Student Papers." The first nominee is none other than Professor Drezner himself for this distinctly imperfect line: "The winner will be determined by a staff vote here at the blog, and will received a prize of unspecified but clearly inestimable value." So the winner hasn't been determined yet but at the same time some guy named Will has already "received" the prize? Please explain.

posted by: Ethan on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

Ooh, Ethan really put the burn on you, sir.

So here are my (carefully edited) contributions to the "contest." Too bad Will already received the prize I would otherwise have been sure to win.

My students, in fact, are excellent spellers and proof-readers, but they do have a tendency toward hyperbole...

"The tensions between India and Pakistan have been a constant headache of international affairs since 1947."

... redundant understatement...

"Radical beliefs have long been with society. These beliefs tend to be interpreted in a more extreme view than the mainstream."

... just general gobbledygook...

"Scholars define torture as atrocities applied to humans and sometimes prolonged situations causing pain."

or all of the above:

"It is to simply mutter the German concentration camp Auschwitz and the record number of tortures that occurred there could produce a twenty-page paper itself."

Finally, here is someone who truly understands how to document one's intellectual process in a section titled "Methodology," which begins:

"In order to make an intelligent argument, I determined that I first had to have a genuine understanding of the conflict. I sought this information in several books because I felt that they would be the most unbiased and factual."

By the way, I get bonus points: these are all graduate students.

posted by: Diodotus on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

My entry is from my first class. The paper was about media and public opinion.

"Given politicians' efforts to maninpulate coverage, citizens cannot easily distinguish between fact and fornication."

The student used fornication where she meant "fabrications" two other times in a five page essay.

posted by: David Sousa on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

Not exactly an essay response, but a night-before-the-exam phone call from a Harvard graduate student in an economic history course:

"What is this 'Cold War' you keep mentioning in class? It is not in any of our readings. It's as if we are expected to just know what it is. I hope this is not on the exam."

True story. Every sad word.

posted by: Chris Blattman on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

Professor Drezner,

This is a marvelous, laugh-out-loud thread. Thanks. And notwithstanding your unforgivable, mortal typo that awarded this mysterious "Will" fellow the grand prize, I raise a toast to your brilliance in starting this.

PS. My favorites were "the nuclear margarine of difference" and "fact and fornication".

posted by: Sebastian on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

this from an otherwise good student paper, in the neologism category:

"Then, after completing XXXX, we segwayed into YYY."

An image I can't get out of my head...

posted by: Kevin Miller on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

And here's how it happened. Take a look at the title of MTV's show at 6 AM (Eastern time) New Year's morning:

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

One T.A. friend of mine now quotes a student who referred to the fact that "We live in a doggy-dog world." (Of course, that's better than living in a God-eat-God world, as in reality we seem to do.)

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 12.17.07 at 08:21 PM [permalink]

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